Books: The ethics of using helicopters
Sunday 14 February 1999
edited by Michel Ciment and Noel Herpe trs Pierre Hodgson Faber pounds 12.99
As multiplexes spring up endlessly across the country, their screens choked with bloated star vehicles promoted by glossy film monthlies, Projections, the annual film buff's bible from Faber, continues to bring us something completely different. A worthy successor to last year's excellent edition, which focused on film critics and the role of criticism in cinema, the latest volume comprises articles taken from one of the granddaddies of auteurist analysis, Positif.
The regular series editors, John Boorman and Walter Donohue, have handed the reins to a pair of the magazine's senior contributors, Michael Ciment and Noel Herpe. Boorman's foreword and Ciment's introduction set the scene: 21 interviews with three generations of French film- makers about films from the past two decades, each prefaced by a potted guide to their career and a brief synopsis of the work under discussion.
The elder statesman of the collection, Robert Bresson, kicks off with a look at his last work to date, L'Argent (1983), and a suggestion that the trend towards three hour films is a sign of slovenly film- making - the first of many direct and indirect references in the book to the sort of commercial product churned out or inspired by Hollywood. Claude Chabrol, for instance, talks about La Ceremonie (1995), his adaptation of a novel by Ruth Rendell, in terms of the interaction between characters rather than the mechanics of suspense.
Louis Malle, one of only two interviewees to have worked in the studio system, contrasts his acclaimed study of French wartime oppression under the Germans, Au revoir les enfants (1987), with a failed commission in the States, and expresses admiration for Americans who work wonders with formula material. Jean-Pierre Jeunet, meanwhile, director of Delicatessen (1990), sees himself as a craftsman rather than an artist, and makes references to Spielberg, Scorsese and Gilliam with the ease you would expect of someone who went on to helm Alien Resurrection (1997).
The same directors are mentioned by Mathieu Kassowitz, maker of explosive racial drama La Haine (1996) and star of Un Heros tres discret (1995), another examination of personal morality in the Second World War by fellow interviewee Jacques Audiard. Audiard, part of the same generation, is the older of the two, so it is no surprise that he talks about the intellectual aspects of his film where his colleague talks about the technical ones, one of the many checks and balances that connect the interviews. Kassowitz brings a miniature helicopter to a housing estate for a complex aerial shot, but Robert Guediguian refuses even to use a crane for Marius et Jeanette (1997) because expensive equipment amid grinding poverty is insulting.
Maurice Pialat describes profligacy and confrontation in shooting his biopic Van Gogh (1991) that characterise his career as a whole, while Patrice Leconte discusses his meticulous planning for satirical costume drama Ridicule (1997) and believes that love and trust between the cast and crew produces the best work. Catherine Breillat dismisses the screenplay of her sex drama 36 fillette (1988) as the ghost of what was made on set, but Olivier Assayas, assessing his developing talents as writer and director, asserts that everything needed to make the film should be in the script.
Ciment is keen to point out that all but one of the interviewees write their own scripts, but of the many films discussed, the director either co-wrote, simply helped develop, or worked from an existing screenplay. Bertrand Tavernier brings the question of authorship into sharp relief when he talks about using someone other than his usual cinematographer to produce a different look for Un dimanche a la campagne (1984). Alain Resnais comments that whoever directed the work of Dennis Potter, his inspiration for recent musical comedy On connait la chanson (1998), the writer always seemed to be doing the editing.
However, there's no disputing Ciment's explanation of why French cinema has resisted Hollywood better than the rest of Europe: because the cultural and political climate is in its favour, attracting attention from its national audience and garnering grants from whichever government is in power. A lesson for us all.
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